Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Washington, taxi livery, design and branding

Today's Post has a story, "Faint praise for D.C.'s taxicabs of the future: 'They're not that ugly'," about DC's plan to have all of the taxicabs in the city painted the same way, so that people can easily and quickly identify a taxi, and the problems coming up with an acceptable design.  From the article:

“Taxis are our ambassadors,” Cheh explains. Tourists chug into Union Station, and taxis are the part of Washington that comes out to greet them. “It’s like,” Cheh explains, “how you turn up on your first date.”

DC has more taxicab companies operating than any other city (this is a good thing, which means that the industry is less monopolistic or oligopolistic) and therefore more different painting schemes on cabs, making it harder to identify a cab--actually I don't think it's hard at all because of the bubble top on the top of the cab, but then I am into transportation.

The point of the common design is to make it very easy to identify a cab.

I wrote about this when it first came up in the entry "The taxi livery debacle as a lead in to a broader discussion of the importance of "design" to DC's "brand promise"."  Also related, but about transit is the entry "Design as a city branding strategy."

Cab livery design is "tricky" because "Yellow" Cab was the first main operator in the industry, active in multiple cities in the country, and they painted their cabs yellow.  So people got accustomed to seeing yellow cabs.

And in the 1970s, New York City required all cabs to be painted the same color with a common logo, deemphasizing the importance and labeling the identity of the actual owner.  In short, the taxicabs are "New York City's taxicabs" not the taxicabs of X or Y or Z owner or operator.  It was also done to make it harder for illegal cabs to operate, because they would not be sporting the common design.

I have been bothered by the DC process and the "Taxicab Commission Service Improvement Amendment Act" because neither was based on an actual plan-study of the industry (as I have mentioned before, the Transportation Element of the Comprehensive Plan doesn't even mention the word taxi or taxicab), and the problems coming up with a decent design are not just the result of the lack of a plan but also general questions about what "Washington" wants to communicate about what it is to the audience of cab users.

The thing about the NYC design is that it isn't subtle.  Both the color and the logo are very direct.  Here are the key elements of the design:

1.  Color (yellow)

2.  A unified logo identifying both New York City and the taxicab service.

3.  Fare information on passenger door

4.  Cab number and trailing design at the rear, starting at the passenger door.

Even so, some designers weren't happy with the "new" design for the taxi logo as released in 2007.  Some designs proffered were even more direct.

The image (right) from the NYT City Room blog entry, "X Marks the Spot and Back to ‘Bullets’" shows an even more direct design, which makes a lot of sense.

The next generation NYC taxicab (a competition won by Nissan) and design tweaks those four elements, making the "T" element larger, and adds other graphic embellishments to the rear of the vehicle.

Another design I've seen makes the T even bigger and more prominent, but pushes it back onto the sliding door.

By contrast the DC process has been more about "attractiveness of design" (I guess) and not about making the process of identifying a taxi very clear, even if that means being very direct and unsubtle rather than "attractive."

Note that in and of itself a common design isn't enough to fix the problems with the provision of taxicab service in DC, which ought to be the primary point of dealing with the taxicab industry.

I think this is in part a failure about not knowing what the point of a redesign is supposed to accomplish.  Is it the federal city and that taxicab users are mostly visitors, or is it a local city that wants to communicate its own identity.

Actually, there is a mural on 14th Street NW just north of Spring Street NW that captures this dynamic, showing both rowhouses and federal monuments.  Could this dynamic be captured in a taxicab design.
Mural showing the local and the national, 14th Street NW, North Columbia Heights

Although another way to be unsubtle would be to use the red, white, and blue and American flag motif, which reminds me of a post I wrote in 2005, "Town-City branding or "We are all destination managers now"," which in part discusses Fayetteville, NC wanting to brand itself as the most patriotic city in the US, and do things like have daily parades, requiring restaurants to sell hot dogs and apple pie, and painting the streets to look like the American flag.

I was derisive of this because a city's identity is something deeper than hot dogs and apple pie.

Then again, there is something to be said for incorporating American flag design into DC's standardized taxicab livery.

It would make the taxicabs very distinctive and identifiable and leverage the branding value (albeit which is diminishing fast) of being the National Capital of the United States of America.

It would also come at the expense of communicating something--if you want to--about the local identity.

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At 2:01 PM, Anonymous Christopher said...

The T alone design is already started. Cabs that updated their paint scheme could tap into the higher rates. So of course they did it all with the quickness.

At 6:57 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

that's a good incentive.

At 4:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Having a fleet of pretty cabs is great, but customer service is still the defining factor which will stick in the minds of visitors.

Some cities are famous for their excellent taxi services, such as London. Others. such as Doha, have appalling, chaotic taxi services.

Taxis are at the forefront of city branding, because they so often provide the visitor with their first impression of the city. Beijing knew this, that's why they retrained all their cab drivers in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics.

I discussed this topic in a recent post:

At 8:08 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Thanks for weighing in. I'm glad to learn about your blog.

At 8:10 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

which of course, I'll add the link to, subscribe to your pushed entries.

For awhile I've been meaning to write a longer piece on this general issue and how cities need to have an element on branding-identity management in their Comp. Plan.s

(I've written a bunch on this concept already.)

At 6:55 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Richard, thanks - would be great to have you as a subscriber. Please send me the links to your related posts, as I'd like to read your thoughts on city brand management.
Best wishes, Sam

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